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Where Is the Bordeaux Wine Region?
Bordeaux is a port region located in southwest France, near the Atlantic Ocean. Two rivers—the Dordogne and the Garonne—also run through the region, affecting the soil and weather (terroir). At the center of the region is the city of Bordeaux, which lies on the Garonne river. The Garonne river leads to the Gironde estuary, which gives its name to the Gironde department, considered the largest producer of fine wine in France.
A History of Winemaking in the Bordeaux Region
Winemaking in Bordeaux dates to the ancient Romans. Roman poet Ausonius (c. 310–394 AD) is the first person known to have grown wine in Bordeaux, and his poems describe the riverbanks of the Gironde as overgrown with grapevines. It's possible that viticulture came to the region via the Rhône Valley in the South of France, where wine was grown by the Allobroges tribe during the first century AD.
The region's port helped boost the economy and increase wine production in the twelfth century. Around this time, a trade agreement with England (which occupied western France) made Burgundy wines affordable to the British, who continued to buy Burgundy wines even after the French won back the region in 1453.
As early as the 1600s, distinct regions and brands developed. In 1885, Bordeaux's historic wine-producing châteaux were classified into grand crus with five quality levels, or “growths,” that still influence the Bordeaux market today. The five first-growth estates (also called premier crus) command the highest prices, with their wine often sold as futures before the vintage is even released. All 61 classified châteaux are in the Médoc region on the left bank of the Gironde River. The right bank appellations of Pomerol and Saint-Émilion, although not included in the 1855 classification, are home to a handful of equally famed producers.
Overview of Bordeaux Subregions
Bordeaux is divided by the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers into two main parts, the Left Bank and the Right Bank.
- The Left Bank, located south of the Garonne and Gironde Rivers, is known for wines made primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon. Within the Left Bank itself are different winemaking regions and sub-regions. Here are some of the most important: Barsac, Graves, Pessac-Léognan, Médoc (including Haut-Médoc), Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, Cérons.
- The Right Bank, located north of the Dordogne and Gironde Rivers, is home to the following subregions. The dominant grape is Merlot. The right bank includes Blaye, Côtes-de-Bourg, Fronsac, Pomerol, Saint Émilion.
- Entre-deux-mers, meaning “between two seas,” is the sub-region between the two banks. The area itself is home to sub-regions like Bordeaux-Haut-Benauge, Côtes-de-Bordeaux-Saint-Macaire, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, and Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux.
What Grapes Are Grown in the Bordeaux Region?
The overwhelming majority of Bordeaux wine is red wine, but whites do exist, making up about 10 percent of the region's production. Sauvignon blanc and Semillon are the most important grapes used for the region’s dry white wine, as well as for the area’s sweet white wine. Common red grapes in Bordeaux include cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon (the most traditional), carménère, malbec, merlot (the most common), muscadelle, and petit verdot. Common white grapes in Bordeaux include sémillon, sauvignon blanc, ugni blanc, colombard, and merlot blanc.
7 Bordeaux Wine Styles
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With almost 6,800 producers in the region, Bordeaux makes up about 25 percent of France’s AOC wine production. Bordeaux may be best known for its namesake red blend, but there are almost 50 distinct appellations in the region.
- Red Bordeaux wine (aka claret) is classified as a unique blend of at least two of the three grape varieties that are commonly grown in the Bordeaux region: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc. While the grapes are traditionally vinified together in Bordeaux and include cabernet, merlot, and petit verdot, the term can refer to this combination used around the world. Bordeaux supérieur is a designation given to red Bordeaux wines produced in smaller quantities and aged in oak barrels.
- Cabernet sauvignon-led blends have blackcurrant and new oak aromas with earthy, herbal flavors, and strong tannins. Cabernets are also sold unblended.
- Merlot-led blends tend to be softer and plummy, and easier to drink without long aging. Merlots are also sold unblended.
- Cabernet franc is the third most popular grape variety in Bordeaux (after Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). This variety is especially important on the Right Bank, and makes for wine with vegetal notes and a slight tang.
- Sweet white Bordeaux wines are barrel-aged blends of sauvignon blanc (usually 20 percent) and sémillon (usually 80 percent). They usually taste quite fruity. Sauvignon blanc is increasingly used in an unblended dry white.
- Sauternes sweet wines are luscious dessert wines made from botrytis-affected grapes, which means a good fungus rots the grapes slightly making them sweeter and leading to a higher alcohol content.
- Bordeaux rosé is rare, but it does exist. It’s made with red grape varietals (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, carménère, petit verdot, or merlot) that are briefly macerated with their skins before the juice is separated out for further fermentation.
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